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November 16, 2010


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I've never seen this, but have long wanted to. Altman in the '70s was really extraordinary, for all the reasons you note, regarding how he went about following up MASH. He seemed so all-embracing of whatever the hell material happened to pass through his field of vision that I think, while your NASHVILLEs and your MCCABE AND MRS. MILLERs and your LONG GOODBYEs are unimpeachable and all that, his quote-unquote marginal stuff, like this, and QUINTET (which I quite enjoy, and would love to see again) and THIEVES LIKE US (really great, I think) is frequently more fascinating. But I suppose with any prolific artist, this is often the case.

Kent Jones

I love many of those movies, but I think NASHVILLE is actually pretty impeachable.


Yeah, well, you just try it.

S. Porath

For me, 'California Split' isn't mentioned nearly enough. It's right up there.
On a totally disconnected side-note, it's so weird to me to think of a time when John Williams regular collaborators were Robert Altman and Mark Rydell (though 'Images' is one of the very few Altman films I haven't seen).

Kent Jones

Okay. Paul Schrader once likened the movie to a wide and shallow wading pool, and I pretty much agree with him. The entire film is dotted with brilliant inventions - Gwen Welles' striptease, Lily Tomlin's sad marriage to Allen Garfield (Goorwitz) and beautiful relationship with her kids, Ronee Blakeley's neurotic superstar (to my ears, she sings the one credible song in the movie outside of the gospel number), Michael Murphy's political operative - and blanketed with terrible melodramatic cliches (Keenan Wynn and Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine as the super-stud singer with his stable of girlfriends, the absolutely improbable ending) and really terrible caricatures, the worst of which, hands-down, is Geraldine Chaplin's reporter, although Jeff Goldblum's magician isn't far from the bottom. I vividly remember the excitement of seeing the movie when it came out, but for me, almost every other Altman movie before and after is more exciting, acute, daring: MCCABE, M*A*S*H*, THE LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT (there is absolutely nothing wrong with that movie), THREE WOMEN, BUFFALO BILL, you name it. I think Altman goes sour and strangely stodgy when he's making big statements about America. If I were stuck in a waiting room for 3 hours and had to choose between NASHVILLE, A WEDDING, HEALTH and SHORT CUTS, I'd take NASHVILLE every time, but I don't think it's a very good movie.


That shot of Duvall walking out has a little to do with the end of Thieves Like Us too, I think.


Hey, I love SHORT CUTS!

But so anyway: I can't take your points down one at a time, because I have no doubt you know the film better than I do (I've only seen it twice, myself), but, for example, while the Carradine character may play badly on the page, I think it plays like gangbusters on film, because Altman at his best was rarely about the grand gestures, but rather the little bits here and there, or simply letting the performances carry the day, as with that scene between Tomlin and Carradine, with her getting dressed while he talks to another girl, and she kisses him before going to work. It's how you execute this stuff, as I'm sure you know full well, and I think Altman executes it beautifully.

As for the idea that the ending is "improbable"...er...so?


The first time I saw Nashville I decided I didn't 'get it' since it's treated as The Big One, and I love The Long Goodbye, McCabe, etc. Saw it again the other week and -- still not getting it. As Kent Jones says, there are some good bits, but too few. The messiness I just find irritating, not lifelike, and there's a curious flatness to the imagery after the amazingly rich California Split.

I almost wish it *were* a Big Statement movie. I'm not American -- hence the not getting it, perhaps -- but the Replacement Party stuff wasn't funny/satirical enough, and feels like a punch pulled, a generalized pissiness. (More specifically I'm British so the Brit journalist character *really* grates.) Will watch again, but not for a while.


What I love about Zuckoff's book is how it shows Altman's working process through his collaborators. What a great organizer of directed chaos, more off-screen and in developing projects than on-screen (or maybe equal parts.) Reading this book, I got the feeling that none of those projects were more significant to Altman than others, he'd just put his head down, charge through and fuck the begrudgers. Location helped sway his decisions, it seemed. But didn't he once say that selecting the next movie to make was like making pommes frites, you throw them in the hopper and see which one comes up first? Of course results varied but that must have been one great ride.

Chris O.

I've only seen BREWSTER McCLOUD once, years ago, and I remember 1) thinking how much you could tell that movie influenced P.T. Anderson and 2) wishing to have seen Stacy Keach's character a couple more times.

@preston - Agreed. You also can see how, maybe more often than not, he was his own worst enemy which also informed the produce for better or worse. Wish they would've gotten into O.C. AND STIGGS a little more. You have Altman and Hopper working together in the early 80s and not one interesting anecdote? Ah well. Entertaining book. The Kevin Spacey story left a bad taste in my mouth, too.


What's the Kevin Spacey story?

Michael Adams

Agree with Kent's takedown of Nashville. Pauline's jumping the gun and proclaiming it a masterpiece seemed to bully others into seeing more in it than is actually there. There are a few good bits, but overall it's scattershot and smug in its superiority to the characters. Still, I love Henry Gibson's performance of "For the Sake of the Children," a wonderful parody of country mawkishness, and Karen Black's crack about Julie Christie's hair. In Zuckoff's book, Gibson offers the most eloquent and insightful comments.

Glenn Kenny

Bill: "What's the Kevin Spacey story?"

Glenn: [bites tongue, hard]

But seriously...Bill, it's worth getting the book itself and reading it entire, really; one may take issue with its aesthetic and whatnot, but it's really...juicy material. Suffice it to say that Spacey is referred to herein as "the Norman Bates of show business."

Kent Jones

Bill, I agree - Keith Carradine and Lily Tomlin act the scene beautifully. If the scene were in a different film, I might like it more. But it's in a grand bicentennial panorama in which multiple varieties of then contemporary American callousness are dutifully ticked off - the laid back, self-centered womanizing musician is variation , or something, next door to the insensitive husband, the egomaniac country music titan, the smooth political operative, the unthinking young girl, etc., all preying on the naive and the good-hearted. The more I think about it, the worse it becomes. As for the ending, "improbable" may be the wrong word choice - how about "ridiculously unlikely?" I know what you're getting at - that assassinations are never predictable, therefore always improbable. So let me put it this way. In this movie, with these characters performing these actions, there is absolutely no way I believe this action as anything but a very, very crude rhetorical device, capped by one of the crudest declarations in modern movies: "This isn't Dallas, this is Nashville..." Yuck.

But, to each his/her own.

Bruce Reid

While Robin Wood is certainly correct about Altman's sometimes superficial lifting from European models, and Makavajev is exactly the kind of free spirit director one could see Altman borrowing from, I think he's a bit off, or at least doesn't give the whole picture, on this specific case. In McGilligan's nasty* biography Jumping Off the Cliff one of the director's old cohorts from his industrial film days traces Auberjonois's lecture to a "wrap-around" format--a constant return to the narrator/lecturer, addressing an unseen audience, interspersed with filmed bits demonstrating the information--common to educational films of the type Altman churned out during his formative years as a director. Maybe a double-barreled influence, Calvin films for the structure and Makavejev for the increasingly grotesque transformation (though I also see a bit of Freaks there myself: "One of us," as the cops chant in The Player.)

Preston: "Reading this book, I got the feeling that none of those projects were more significant to Altman than others, he'd just put his head down, charge through and fuck the begrudgers."

An excellent summation, and one of the reasons that Altman always struck me (probably an unflattering burst of chauvinism on my part, I admit) as so exemplary an American director. Like how Eastwood followed up the dawning critical recognition for his directorial talents on Outlaw Josey Wales by helming The Gauntlet, except Altman played that zigzag move for three straight decades.

And I love Nashville (bill's right, a lot of it works better in action than it has any right to on the page), but agree it's unfortunately overshadowed other, greater, efforts, California Split chief among them.

*Impossible to do an honest portrait of Altman without pointing out some remarkably asshole moves from Altman throughout his career, sure, but McGilligan dwells on them and relishes the takedowns from peers too much for my taste.


Michael - I don't even like Kael, so she didn't bully me into anything.

Glenn - Well now I guess I'd better! But I will, honestly. Somehow, I just forgot it existed, even after that foofaraw over the one "review"...

Kent - Fair enough. Cliches rarely feel like cliches when employed by Altman at his most discerning, so what can you do? If it works (for me), it works (for me). But the line about NASHVILLE being so smug and superior never made sense to me -- I often think that what critics of NASHVILLE claim Altman tried and failed to do is not what he was ever trying to do, and is therefore not failing to do it. You know what's smug and superior? M*A*S*H.

So, yeah, to each his own.

Stephen Bowie

The most jaw-dropping quotes in the Zuckoff book are from the Matthew Modine/Jane Adams spat. Boy, would I have loved to be a fly on that wall. Or not.

Anyway, yeah, it's an essential book, although one wishes it were 100 pages longer (and you KNOW that material exists & just didn't make the cut).


I do love Nashville and it may be one of my all time favorites. I feel more like the film is a loose essay on 'celebrity' than 'America in 76'. Most everyone in that film is dealing with recognition issues, wanting be noticed, to be seen, to put on a show. One could fairly say "that WAS what America was about in '76" but to me the characters are too sensitively drawn, positively or negatively, to be a mawkish parody. To me Altman wasn't a 'deep issue' kinda filmmaker. Absurdist, absolutely. I don't see as him trying to capture the American zeitgeist, but maybe showing the foibles of the famous and those who wanted to get that way.

And I loved Geraldine Chaplin's character; I thought she was the most absurd of them all. But like most of Altman, each to their own.


I agree with everything Preston just said.

warren oates

The smug superiority isn't just a problem in NASHVILLE. For the longest time I felt it in nearly every Altman film I screened. And the big issue for me wasn't so much the looking down his nose/lens at all the people in the world of his films. It's that he didn't seem to include himself along with the rest of us. As if he were exempted from collusion with the way things are just for having noticed it himself. I forget what film it was that broke through to me, but I eventually realized I was wrong--at least about the last part. Altman never thought he was better than the whole ridiculous lot of humanity. Got the Warner Archive disc sitting on my shelf and now I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks, Glenn.

Bruce Reid

warren oates: "I forget what film it was that broke through to me, but I eventually realized I was wrong--at least about the last part."

Maybe Nashville, since, contra the claims of directorial smugness and Chaplin's godawful caricaturing, Altman was as far as I know always consistent in claiming her reporter was meant as a way of inserting himself into the proceedings.

Tom Block

>As for the ending, "improbable" may be the wrong word choice - how about "ridiculously unlikely?

Or "overdetermined". "Pretentiously portentous". "Almost as facile as the earthquake in Short Cuts". All of those work for me, too.

Outside of a few moments I never have been a fan of Nashville--it's a showcase for all of Altman's worst instincts, almost as bad as the Jack Lemmon stuff in Short Cuts. I think the primo stuff of that era--Cal Split, Long Goodbye, McCabe and Thieves--just wipes it out, but because it was long, big and ended with a portentous bang, it's presumed to be the masterpiece.

Kent Jones

I think it's interesting that there can be so many different points of view about Altman and which films are the best. From my perspective it has to do with what he represented when his films first came out, what those films meant when set against the movie landscape of the moment. For other people, younger than Glenn or myself, I'm sure it's very different. Even if I don't like NASHVILLE so much anymore, I still treasure the experience of seeing it for the first time.

I don't buy the "smug and superior" line, and Robin Wood's critique of Altman never had much traction for me - he could have made exactly the same argument about HIS GIRL FRIDAY. If I prefer M*A*S*H* to NASHVILLE, it's because everything and everyone in it is shadowed by the war. At any rate, smugness and superiority have nothing to do with my problems with NASHVILLE.

I don't understand why Altman's statements in an interview about Geraldine Chaplin's character should have any bearing on how we see her in the movie. Nor do I care about Altman's offscreen life - why should it make a difference?

I agree with Preston - Altman is not at all a deep issue kind of filmmaker. Most great filmmakers aren't. My problems are with the movies that TRY to deal with big issues. NASHVILLE may indeed play best as a "loose essay on celebrity," but to recast it as such is to leave out a lot of its rhetorical moves. On the other hand, I don't see any "mawkish parody" in the movie. Just a lot of shallow conceptions. To me, any number of characters and situations within the film could have served as the basis of a great movie - Lily Tomlin and her kids most of all - but instead they're stuck in this one.

Kent Jones

Oy - up above I wrote that Tomlin's character is married to Garfield. Dead wrong, of course - her scene with Ned Beatty and the kids is great.

Tom Block

Tomlin has one scene where she's totally out of character, and in that caricaturish Altman way--talking in a cornpone accent and telling some story that either should've come from one of the other characters or else has to make us think less of her than the film would otherwise have it.

The critical line about Altman that's always irked me is how he supposedly "detested" the genres he worked in, and the thesis seems to be that he deliberately shredded them in some pretentious hippie snit. But there's a difference between despising something and seeing that it needs replenishing, and the movies usually made to serve as evidence--most notably "McCabe" and "Long Goodbye"--are actually incredibly observant of their respective conventions. The placement of "Hurray for Hollywood" doesn't begin to diminish how shattering it is when Roger Wade drowns or Marty Augustine does his Coke bottle number, and the straw-haired gunslinger murders Carradine by employing the oldest trick in the Western book, and that scene's shot as straight as an arrow. If Altman hated genre, then so did David Chase--a man who clearly adores the gangster form. It's rather a case of them understanding that genres are robust enough to handle multiple layers of meaning.

(And just as a sidebar, something that really struck me about "They Drive by Night" when I saw it again was how tonally consistent it is with "Thieves", especially the performances of the two women: O'Donnell, with her overalls, Cokes and smokes, is practically Duvall's spiritual mirror. I've read Altman saying he'd never seen Ray's movie, and I believe it, but I'd swear I can feel the earlier movie's fingerprints all over the later one. It may just be the power of Edward Anderson's novel coming through.)

Bruce Reid

Kent Jones: "I don't understand why Altman's statements in an interview about Geraldine Chaplin's character should have any bearing on how we see her in the movie."

It shouldn't; just going for a joke based on the direction the conversation had gone in relation to Nashville and Chaplin, and warren oates's comment in particular.


@Kent - "I think it's interesting that there can be so many different points of view about Altman and which films are the best."

NASHVILLE's not even my favorite, but I can't say what my favorite actually is because I think I'd get yelled at.

Tom Block

Oh, c'mon--"O.C. & Stiggs" isn't THAT bad.


"I think Altman goes sour and strangely stodgy when he's making big statements about America."

What director doesn't? I'm of the view that attempts to make big statements about America - big statements about practically anything, for that matter - are almost invariably deadly. Several Fords are exceptions, and... maybe the GODFATHER films, which I have mixed feelings about.

Kent Jones

Tom Block, it's LIVE, not DRIVE, and I don't believe Altman for a minute when he claims he never saw the original. It is a great novel, and it was almost made into a movie in the mid-30s by Rowland Brown.

I agree with you - all that stuff about turning genres inside out was just rhetoric of the period. The movies told a different story.

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